Monday, February 23, 2009

The Worst Sit Ever

No exaggeration. Well, barely. Ellie and I joined our sitting group yesterday morning for our usual Sunday hour-long sit, and I had what has to count as my worst sit ever--and I've been doing this for fifteen years! Perhaps some of my meditating friends out there could help me with their insights.

Here's how it went: I noticed something "wrong" from the start. It usually takes me no more than a few breaths to get settled in, to slow down to meditation speed. Yesterday, though--and for no discernible reason--my heart was pounding at an unusual rate and my breath was jerky and uneven. I tried the usual tactics. Keep breathing, watch the breath. I moved on into metta, the goodwill practice, first for myself, then for family and close friends--I went through all the usual faces--then those I don't know and have no judgment about one way or the other, those I dislike or distrust, those in power, those without it, who are suffering from hunger, disease, or violence. My mind kept wandering, nowhere in particular, and my body was inordinately restless. Legs, arms, neck... I did my best to bring some rest to them with the breath. No luck.

Undeterred, I moved on to my body scan, starting at the centerpoint and working through the abdomen, the flanks, chest and heart, neck, head... and down the back to the legs and down from the shoulders to the fingertips. I could NOT get settled. Neither mind nor body. I ached, literally, to be out of there. Several times, I nearly got up and left. I resorted to measuring the passing minutes against the breath, and every minute seemed like a half-hour. It wasn't as though there was anything particular on my mind--not that I could identify, though I resisted trying to identify it.

Then came the panic. This was perhaps forty minutes into the sit. It manifested first in the form of body heat. I felt my body begin to burn, a kind of fever which intensified into a sweating anxiety. My head kept saying, gotta get out of here. NOW. Fighting the panic, of course, results only in more panic. I had to MOVE. I found small ways to release the tension, a shift in the position of the legs, a slight stretch of the neck. Small comfort. My head began to go into black-out mode... Fearing that I would quite literally and imminently pass out, I leaned forward, placing my head between my knees.

Then it was over. For perhaps no more than the last five minutes of that long, long hour, I managed to find a place of serenity. I began to breathe easy. I managed to let go of everything that had gone before. My mind was content to accept stillness and peace. Then the bell rang. I was never so happy to hear that mellow sound...

I wonder, then, if any of my fellow meditators have had similar experiences? I have, in truth, had minor episodes of this kind in the past--particularly the body heat and, of course, the struggle with the mind and the breath. But never this intense, or this prolonged. I wonder to what extent it might have to do with our current global malaise, about which I'll be posting more tomorrow. Have you been losing sleep?


lindsey said...

It's always difficult when I hear of others experiencing anxiety and panic; having struggled with it myself for years, I would never wish it on someone else. (Especially not during a time that is supposed to be calming and centering!)

I think you're right that it has something to do with the "current global malaise," as you called it. Personally I find myself avoiding real news, as it just serves to upset and discourage me. Even metta practice becomes difficult as it seems like just a little drop of water on such a huge wildfire.

Take care!

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Lindsey! I'm planning to "tag" you tomorrow about this. Hope it's not an imposition...

mandt said...

That has also happened to me before Peter; particularly in sesshins lasting longer than a few days. Over the years I applied various responses to such incidents and came up with an approach that seems to work: at certain junctures in a mature practice chakra disturbances are triggered at the oddest times, but are perfectly natural. They are often very alarming because they resemble panic reaction. (It is important however to distinguish between chakra disturbances and physiological distress rising from heart or other organ problems.) I have approached these episodes in the past by changing the context of the 'sitting' to a zen school form called 'shikantaza' or empty non conceptual silence; then direct the debris that arises to a phowa 'type' practice that directs the energy up to the crown of the head and visualized non verbally as a stream rising up and out.
Your experience is very valuable in that it prepares the ordinary mind of our daily life for the transformations that occur when we die and experience the bardos.

robin andrea said...

I have experienced anxiety and panic, but I don't practice meditation, so it has never occurred under that circumstance. Your description of that particular agony is perfect.

TaraDharma said...

sounds like a real-live panic attack. what is going on in your life?

...or, did you drink a triple shot latte earlier in the day?!

NellaLou said...

(I left this comment on the ProgBud post but will put it here as well)
I have had this happen a few times also. (I also had panic attacks when much younger but not for over 10 years now)It's an indefinable restlessness. And even when I moved it didn't help. In fact the more I moved when this happened the worse it got.
What it came down to for me was my physical state attempting to emulate my mental state. To relieve some of the anxiety even if I couldn't have said at that moment what that anxiety was about.
Within a few days something would surface that was apparently, subconciously, "a big deal" and once that manifested then the whole thing stopped.
Metaphorically I think of it like an underground guyser. And now when I notice such things I set myself into a sort of preparation mode and drop any barriers that are preventing this "big deal" from emerging. Whatever comes then is not inhibited by my fear of it. It's much more gentle that way now. And some of it had to do with fear of what I didn't know about myself. It was a construction of imaginary fear pushing down on fear in memory and something, environmentally, was agitating that memory fear.
If I have long bouts of insomnia, such as from jet lag, it is hard to set up the conditions to receive and process fearful things either from within or without.
One has to then be compassionate with one's self and remove a lot of overstimulating things from the environment. And one may have to ask others just to back off a little as well. Structured exercise (like Tai Chi or Yoga) can help a little too.
That's how I deal with it and such things have become rare.
I hope some of this is of assistance.

Anonymous said...

I felt a little vicarious panic just reading that you were forty minutes into a sit. I cannot sit that long. On a cushion, cross-legged, anyway. I can sit for the silent hour of a Quaker Meeting in a chiar for an hor, but I get panicky when my legs start aching.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks to MandT for a useful practice. It sounds like a good healing at a critical moment.

Robin, glad you recognized the vertigo! Did you catch my comment this morning?

Tara, there IS the general dis-ease in the air. And I'm scheduled to be on staff at one of the men's training weekends I have done for years--but not in quite some time. There's fear around that... But, also, please see my "meme" in tomorrow's TBD.

NellaLou, thanks for checking in with useful thoughts and suggestions. I was delighted to find your blog, and will link to it from The Buddha Diaries soon.

And Citizen.. I gave up the cross-legged bit a while ago. I sit on a chair. There was an interesting piece in the last issue of Tricycle by a Zen practitioner on this subject. Did you catch it? Better to sit on a chair than to be distracted throughout the sit by pain.

Cardozo said...

When I'm feeling anxiety/restlessness, it almost always comes from one of two sources:

1) I haven't finished my "to do list," in response to which I usually try to make a new, shorter list. :)

2) I'm not sure what should be on my "to do list" in the first place, in response to which I write in my journal like a madman until I reconnect with my passions.

Robin said...

yes, every now and then, we will go into this stage.

be careful about attaching to a good meditation hour..

i had my fair share of this feeling during my 4 hours surgery recently.


Jean said...

I'm with Mandt. This is something that can happen in meditation, frequently for some meditators, once in a lifetime for others. It does sound like the symptoms of a classic panic attack, but does not in any way necessarily imply a sudden disposition to these outside the meditation situation. No harm in wondering what may have triggered it, looking at what's going on in your life and your head right now. Self-awareness is always good. But it could be that, or not that at all. More of that big, same old thing required, I think: sitting with not knowing.

I've been sitting for about 12 years and, though I have not had quite what you describe, I have struggled recently - to my surprise and indignation - with difficulties I had never had before. I guess there is never a time when this is just not going to happen. If we had reached there, why continue to meditate?

Having said which: ow, ow, poor you - my sympathies!

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for checking in, Jean, and for the insight. What's happening with "Tasting Rhubarb"?

ErnestO said...

Was this an in body experience?

My people say the answer is always in the question.

Abandon any hope of fruition.

The key instruction is to stay in the present. Don’t get caught up in hopes of what you’ll achieve and how good your situation will be some day in the future. What you do right now is what matters.
Two activities: one at the beginning, one at the end.
In the morning when you wake up, you reflect on the day ahead and aspire to use it to keep a wide-open heart and mind. At the end of the day, before going to sleep, you think over what you have done. If you fulfilled your aspiration, even once, rejoice in that. If you went against your aspiration, rejoice that you are able to see what you did and are no longer living in ignorance. This way you will be inspired to go forward with increasing clarity, confidence, and compassion in the days that follow.
From Always Maintain a Joyful Mind, © 2007 by Pema Chödrön

Jean said...

Hi Peter. Tasting Rhubarb is mostly likely off the air until May, while I devote my 'spare' time to wrestling with many thousands of words of frequently just about untranslateable scholarly French - an experience of about equal parts pain and pleasure. I am sorely tempted to blog about translation instead of doing it, but am nobly resisting. Hoping to return with masses of pent-up creativity and the money for a very nice new camera.

PeterAtLarge said...

What are you translating, Jean? In a former life, I used to be a translator--French poetry and poetics. My PhD dissertation included a number of translations; it was called "Magicians of Insecurity."

Jean said...

Articles for an academic journal. Very chewy kind of language, some of them. The kind of thought patterns that don't work at all in English, all abstract nouns and passive verbs.

PeterAtLarge said...

I sympathize!

hele said...

I learned an interesting meditation a while ago. Instead of letting your thoughts drift through you try and intensify a thought. As soon as you find the thought switching into another you try and return to where the first thought was and gentle stay on the edge of the thought, seeing where it leads you. The meditation author is Arnold Mandel - a process psychologist.

Anonymous said...

Jean, you have finally given me an answer as to why I could not pass my French language exam for my American Studies graduate degree program; all excerpts from 1920's French Socialist philosophy. Even the language grad students that graded the exams couldn't believe we were assigned those passages.

Truly a revalation......thank you!

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Anonymous said...

Hello Peter,

Dismissing the notion of panic in favor of the Buddhist diagnosis, have you heard of vipassanupakkilesa? It's the 10 disruptions/defilements/imperfections of insights, e.g. light, rapture, heat, etc.

Corruption of insight; intense experiences that can happen in the course of meditation and can lead one to believe that one has completed the path. The standard list includes ten: light, psychic knowledge, rapture, serenity, pleasure, extreme conviction, excessive effort, obsession, indifference, and contentment."

Your symptoms could be it.

I noticed somewhere that you mentioned Silver Lake. Are you aware that there is a sitting group in Silver Lake? The group leader is Dan, whom I've only met once on a Thursday night sitting. Perhaps you might contact him to ask questions on meditation.


Anonymous said...

Or.. you could write to Lennart.. Here's his blog: